Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Open and the Graduated Rough Crowd

Following the Open, I listened to commentary on the Golf Channel and PGA Tour Radio from pundits talking about how they thought that Merion should have had graduated roughs. Their opinions were that this was somehow fairer. I don't know about fairer but it certainly would have made the Open easier. First of all, the Open isn't some egalitarian tournament, it's a Championship with the implied purpose of identifying the best golfer. The US Open is supposed to test many things including one's mettle.

But let's get back to just why graduated rough does not necessarily help identify the best golfer. Now if the ideal landing area for every hole was in the middle of the fairway, then I might buy into the graduated fairway idea but at Merion the preferred landing areas are rarely in the middle of the fairway and may vary from day to day based on the pin locations and what club you are hitting. So, if the ideal landing area is on the left side of the fairway and the golfer misses the fairway to the left a few yards, the graduated  rough would aid a slightly errant shot. However, if the player hits the ball 25 yards right of the ideal landing area he could land in graduated rough. Did we help identify the best golfer?

Life is not fair, just like golf is not fair and the attempts to make golf fairer will succeed about as well as governments trying to make things fairer...perhaps we could ask the Politburo for advice on fairness.

You may want to read-

Libertarian Philosophies in Golf Course Architecture

Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Open and Why it Worked

Justin Rose with Matt Shaffer, Buddy Marucci and the Golf Course Maintenance Staff

Merion was spectacular. You have to understand that I love Merion, having grown up a couple of miles away and having been the Assistant there in 1980 and 1981. On top of that, I think that the golf course is important, obviously, for its Championship history and turf maintenance history but also for its impact on golf course design. And to see the course in all of its splendor, vetting the best golfers in the world was just as interesting as it could get for me. That couldn't have happened without Mike Davis and Matt Shaffer.

The USGA's Mike Davis has in the last two years impressed me with his insight into course setup. As you may know, I have opined in the past about what in my opinion were lackluster setups with bad decisions. Hey Mike, you nailed it, you got it right, yeah, I might have had the fairways a little bit wider and you didn't use my two favorite pin positions (#3, #16) because the speeds wouldn't have made them fair. Other than that, I've got nothing to say except, thanks for a job well done!

And to Matt and his staff, Wow!

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Merion, The Open and The Superintendent's Psychological Warfare

Merion, the USGA's Mike Davis and Matt Shaffer (Merion's Super Super) have intimidated the best players in the world. Maybe, intimidated is too strong a word, perhaps we should say challenged the best players in the world... no I'll stick with intimidated. The level of intimidation is probably inadvertent but it appears to be affecting the players or maybe the players just realize that it's Merion and the Open. The golf course as set up by the USGA with narrow fairways, long rough and some good length added on already long Par 4s and Par 3s has apparently confounded the players not just overtly with conditioning but with the subtleties of the design. When any golfer has doubt or indecision in their minds while hitting a shot, it usually does not bode well for them.

But before that, Matt Shaffer put a kind of doubt into their minds that they have rarely if ever had. Matt talked about how Merion's greens have grain in them. He wasn't mentioning this as a problem simply a fact; his members, mostly all "real" golfers are used to the additional challenge of grain. Now, I'm not talking about the drivel that we hear every week from Johnny Miller, who doesn't understand grass or grain, I'm talking about real grain with areas of grass blades laying down in one direction and right next to them, areas with grain running other directions. Matt likes grain; it's naturally what bentgrass likes to do.

Then, Matt went even further, he talked about all of the different grasses in the roughs at Merion and how the player will have to adjust to the 8 or 10 different grasses in the roughs. Usually, for a Championship or tournament, Superintendents and Clubs try to create a uniform rough. So in other words, most of the time the grass is adjusted to the players' desires instead of what Merion and the USGA have done...let the players figure it out or possibly not.

So now, the best golfers in the world are thinking about a golf course that embraces grainy greens and roughs that have all kinds of different grasses offering all of these different lies. It's enough to send the guys to their sports psychologists with panic attacks. I think that Wilson, Flynn and the Valentines are looking down from the heavens with smiles on their faces.

Memories of the 1981 US Open:

In 1980, we rebuilt several championship tees on East Course. Richie Valentine manipulated the slope of these tees. He believed that the greatest golfers in the world should be able to figure out the slope of a tee and adjust their shot accordingly. An example of what we did was the 15th Championship tee, which we put a 1% grade on from the right side to the left side, creating a hook lie on a hole that you probably want to hit a fade on since there is OB very close to the landing areas on the left side. The member tee was sloped 1% from the left side to the right side creating a fade lie to help the member stay in bounds.

Not Just Another Open...Merion Shines

Acre for Acre, none better

The "Old Girl" is holding up just fine. Great architecture has and is standing the test of time. And as much as I have, in the past, identified some issues that the USGA and I don't agree on, I can't tell you how right they got this Open at Merion. Over the weekend, golfers will have a gut check. The contenders' intestinal fortitude will be thoroughly vetted by the "Old Girl." We'll see how they hold up, we now, all know that Merion will hold up.

A couple of years ago, I went back to my 35th High School reunion, which was held just about five minutes from Merion. I started out that Saturday morning by getting a tour of Rolling Green and then I went to Merion and saw many of the changes on the East Course that were under construction and got to spend some time with Matt Shaffer. After the East Course, I went around the West Course and finished up the day at Aronimink. I worked at all of these great golf courses and I wanted to see the renovations/restorations that each had undertaken. Philadelphia has so many great golf courses that I just can't imagine a better place to learn about golf course design, even if it was mostly by osmosis.

While I was on the East Course, I was reminded about how Merion under Matt, just as it was under Richie Valentine and his father before him, is more concerned about playability than country club aesthetics. The club has history in golf but it also has history in golf course maintenance. When I was the Assistant Superintendent there in 1980 and 1981, I learned that the purpose of the Superintendent was to provide a playing field first and foremost,  Matt Shaffer is doing that this week.

Memories from the 1981 Open:

In 1981, we had two inches of rain on Monday and almost two inches Friday night to Saturday morning. The golf course was wet and the we worked hard to put some speed on the greens. We had one employee, Joe Owsik, who was a very good golfer. Joe's last green to mow was the 17th on Saturday. I don't know how many times he mowed and rolled that green. Billy Buchanan and I were checking green speeds with PJ Boatwright looking over our shoulders as he checked out the pin placement. The ball rolled down the stimpmeter and right off of the green, Billy said to PJ "Looks like a 10 to me" and PJ just nodded, puffed on his pipe, turned around and walked away. Joe Owsik ended up being my Assistant at Rolling Green and is now the Superintendent at Philmont Country Club.

Merion gave birth to many future Superintendents. How many, probably well over a hundred. Merion is great on so many levels.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Merion...Rain Rain Go Away, Come Back Again Some Other Day (or Week preferably)

Rain continues to plague The Open at Merion. The golf course is special and continues to hold up to the best golfers in the world despite being softened by the heavy rains. This really does reinforce what many of us that love Merion thought, the design of the golf course is wonderful and will once again identify the best golfer in the world. 

And Merion absolutely requires the golfer to show their shot making skill, course management, and mental toughness. There will be adversity and the ability of the golfer to face adversity intelligently is critical to success. Trouble abounds and there is OB everywhere. I suspect that there has never been a course that held a Major Championship that had more holes with out of bounds in play. The winner of this event may well be the golfer that saves a bogey from becoming a double or triple.

Not surprisingly, Matt Shaffer (Merion's Chief Grass Grower) and his staff have done a spectacular job of readying the golf course through these very trying conditions. Hey Mother Nature, enough already. If it ever stops raining the course will dry quickly, it drains very well and Matt will get those greens nice and firm. Maybe some day the USGA will allow tarping of the greens. We cover baseball infields, football fields, and soccer fields, why not greens on the golf course? If they had tarped the greens at Merion, what would the scores have been like today?

Some more trivia:

In 1981, after the Open, I moved into the 3rd floor of the clubhouse where they had some employee housing. And while we had our own bathroom, we also had direct access to the 3rd floor of the locker room. Many of you have heard of the marvelous showers at Merion and I can assure you that I used them often and that they are second only to the golf course at Merion.

On Thursday of the 1981 Open, I got a call from Richie Valentine to meet him at the small putting green, the one next to the golf shop. Upon arriving there, Richie introduced me to George Fazio, George put his glasses on and looked me up and down, shook my hand and turned around and walked away. Richie just shook his head and laughed. Years, later, when I told Tom Fazio about the introduction, he just roared.

The flagpole at Merion is one more reminder that Merion is a golf club. The pole was positioned to be an aiming point from both the 10th and 18th tee shots.

Missing the Open, Rollers, Dune Grass

Wednesday is my favorite day to be at the Open. The  contestants are finalizing their strategies and as they practice you can see how they're thinking about playing. They practice the shots that they think they will have and are fine tuning things. I've always found that very interesting.

Merion is a golf course that you have to think your way around. So I think that the players that do well will be, obviously the ones staying out of the rough but ultimately, the ones that have the best course management. A certain type of mental toughness will be required of the players to handle repeated decisions on each tee of what club to hit to those narrow landing areas.

In 1981, Richie Valentine had me pick up 18 rollers from the Merion Cricket Club. The rollers were 4 feet wide and were not real heavy and were never used on the course. But they were placed at the players' exit at each green. Richie Valentine, Merion's Superintendent, wanted to "get into the player's heads." So every time a player walked off a green they had to pass by or almost step over a green's roller.

The Dune Grass in the bunkers at Merion that was refreshed prior to the 1981 US Open came from Atlantic City Country Club. Doug Fraser, Leo Fraser's* son, brought it up to Merion for us to fill in some thin spots in the bunkers. Valentine would pick the locations to plant the grass clumps by gathering up some small stones and sticks and throwing them up in the air. Wherever they landed we planted clumps. It was as random and as natural as you could get.

Thought of the day: Keep an eye out for the third hole. This may be one of the finest uphill par 3s in the world.

Unfortunately, I'm not at the Open on my favorite day because Dick Zokol and I are working on the renovation at the Presidio Golf Course.

The 10th hole at Presidio Golf Course

* Leo Fraser was the owner of Atlantic City Country Club and presided over the PGA when the organization split into the PGA Tour and the PGA of America.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

David Graham's Wicker from his 1981 US Open Victory

In 1981 after David Graham had won the US Open, Richie Valentine, Merion's Superintendent, had me ship a wicker to David Graham. The article below appeared in one of the Philadelphia newspapers after the Open.

Years later, I got to know David a little bit and I was able to tell him about sending his wicker to him. It wasn't much longer after that, that David called me about getting Guerrio D'Achille to make some wickers for a 36 hole golf course that he and Gary Panks were building in Australia. Ultimately the club chose not to use wickers but it gave me a chance to visit about Merion with David again.

In the winter of 1980-81, I learned how to make wickers when we made a new set of wickers for The Open. The wickers were made from rattan that Guerrio softened to the right consistency with a steam cleaner. We used an 8 foot tall aluminum flag pole turned upside down, moving the ferrel to the bottom and attaching the basket to the top and a common funnel snugged the bottom of the basket to the pole. Wickers are in Crimson and Tangerine. And remember wickers don't show which way the wind blows.

Probably more interesting though is that the old wickers were all different heights. The set that was in use up until the Open ranged in height from 6.5 feet tall to 8 feet tall. The wickers were picked up every evening to prevent theft and replaced each morning as we did course setup. And as the guy that did that course setup most days, I created optical illusions as to the hole position on the greens by using different length poles for different effects. A short pin in the front of the green looked to be much deeper.

Everything about Merion was and is just a little bit different and more than a little bit original, hopefully this Open will be too.

Pray for good weather this week!

Monday, June 10, 2013

The 1981 US Open at Merion with a Chevy Nova driving on the Greens

If I told you that a car spun out on a green and drove across another before the start of the 3rd round of a US Open, would you be surprised? Would you be even more surprised to hear that at Merion during the 1981 US Open, that a car spun out on the 2nd green then drove backwards on the 2nd fairway, drove between the 2nd and 5th tees onto the 10th fairway across the 10th green through the bunker across the 2nd tee and turned onto Ardmore Avenue never to be seen again? The truth is indeed stranger than fiction. It happened.

Each morning as I drove to the club to prepare for the Championship, I would sneak through security on my way to the golf course maintenance building taking a different route each morning. I wasn't doing this just to irritate the security staff but to make a point that their perimeter and access control were lacking. Ardmore Avenue runs through the golf course and Golf House Road runs along part of the "Back Five."

On Saturday morning, as I was driving through a heavy rain for the third round of the Championship, I noticed that there was no guard at the gate that goes to the 2nd green from Ardmore Avenue and that the chain was down. When I got to the maintenance building, my thoughts went towards that morning's preparations as Richie Valentine and I adjusted the morning's plans for the staff to deal with the rainfall and I really didn't think about the gate at number 2 until as I was making my rounds checking on the staff twenty minutes later.

Wanted for Criminal Trespassing, 1981 US Open

By that time a Chevy Nova had driven onto the course, spun out on the back of the 2nd green, went down the 2nd fairway onto the 10th fairway, across the 10th green through the bunker across the 2nd tee and turned onto Ardmore Avenue. The driver didn't know how lucky he was because he was being chased by Dominic (Loco) Crespo. And if Dominic had caught him, he would have had a tough time of it. By the way, Dominic's brother Miguel Crespo still works at Merion these 32 years later.

The car had spun out on the back of the 2nd green and skimmed the turf off of the green in a half donut within a few feet of Saturdays pin position. Being the ever energetic Assistant Superintendent, I asked Richie if I should topdress the spot. Richie told me to just spread some green's clippings over it after it was mowed and that we'd move the pin to the front. And that was it.

Another Richie Valentine story. Do you notice anything different about this plaque? No, well take a close look at the ROBERT TYRE JONES, JR. section. Now do you notice that it's raised? What name do you think might have originally been on the plaque? How about Robert Trent Jones?

Richie told me the story about how the club had this plaque made and took him out to the 11th tee to see it mounted on the rock. Richie said "The plaques beautiful but that's not his name." Thus the raised portion of the plaque.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Memories of the Last OPEN at Merion

( courtesy of Matt Shaffer, Photo by Dave McDonald)

As a tribute to Merion Golf Club, I will reflect on my memories of the behind the scenes events that happened far from the television and press coverage during the 1981 U.S. Open. In 1980 and 1981, I was the Assistant Superintendent at Merion. Please keep in mind that these are my memories and they may be slightly flawed based on a misspent youth and adult career in the golf business. All of this from the only man west of the Susquehanna River that can make a wicker.

Let me start with a fun one, that every golfer has an opinion about, pin placements. Even in those days, Merion's resistance to scoring was being questioned. With that in mind, it came down to how firm and fast the greens were, how tough the pin placements were, and how tough the rough was. Fairway widths were little changed for the Open with the widths ranging from 26 to 32 yards wide in the landing areas. So, to us on the golf course maintenance side of things, with our fearless leader Richie Valentine (Merion's 3rd Superintendent who took over from his father who had taken over from Flynn) at the helm, we thought that we were the last defense of protecting the course and club from an assault. We considered it a personal affront that some player, no matter how great, would tarnish the reputation of Merion.

Well, the course's defenses were compromised by the weather with heavy rain falling on Monday softening the greens and I remember very clearly Richie Valentine's diatribe about how easy the pin placements had been on both Thursday and Friday, which had led to low scores. Richie was not bashful and could elucidate with the best of them and he had done so at the club's US Open committee meeting (held in a motor coach in the parking lot) on Friday afternoon. The General Chairman, Bill Kent,  ran military like rap up sessions at the end of each day. At the end of the meeting he asked if anyone else had anything to add. Much to the chagrin of the Mr. Kent, Richie Valentine said "When are you going to tell the USGA to set some tough pin placements because if you don't then I'll set them myself." At that point the committee erupted in cheers and one of the women, I think it was Mrs. Bone, said "Why, you tell him Richie, we have tougher pin placements for the ladies member guest" and her comments were accurate. Merion's members were more apt to complain about a banal course setup than an interesting, tough setup; they knew golf, still do for that matter.

The setup that Richie was complaining about was being dictated by one of golf's all time great characters, P.J. Boatwright, Jr. of the USGA. I remember being on the 17th green on Saturday morning with Billy Buchanon (USGA Championship Agronomist) measuring green speeds with Richie Valentine watching us when P.J. walked onto the green puffing his pipe and said to Richie "I understand that you think that the pin placements have been too easy" to which Richie responded "You're damn right P.J." With that P.J. puffed on his pipe and said "I think you'll find them a bit more to your liking today." and we did.

More to come:

A Chevy Nova drives across two greens on Saturday morning of the Open
How fast did 17 green get?
David Graham and his Wicker